A small copper butterfly taking a drink of nectar from a thistle head flower, summer days.

How to plant a wildlife garden: Pollinator-friendly plants and container displays for bees and butterflies

We look at how to create a wildlife garden, improve habitats for pollinating insects like bees and butterflies and the best plants and flowers to help attract insects into the garden. Plus, answer common questions like what does pollinator-friendly mean?

British gardens are key habitats for bees and butterflies and gardeners can do a lot to attract wildlife and help the decline in pollinators. An increase in beneficial insects can mean fewer pests, too. Our guide to attracting wildlife into the garden gives advice on ecological design, the best plants for pollinators and stylish container displays for beneficial insects.

Wildlife-friendly plants. Photo: Andrew Montgomery

Here is our guide to attracting wildlife into the garden, with advice on pollinator-friendly plants and how to improve wildlife habitats through considered garden design.

What does pollinator-friendly mean?

If a plant is listed as pollinator-friendly, it means it will provide nectar and pollen for pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies. It also refers to the shape of the flower and how the plant has been grown. Pollinator-plants will often have trumpet-shaped blooms or single flowers for insects to crawl into and land on, and mostly free from pesticides. Look out for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plants for Pollinators symbol at garden centres and plant nurseries if you want reassurance that you’re buying the best plants for garden wildlife.

detail of bee or honeybee in Latin Apis Mellifera, european or western honey bee sitting on the violet or blue flower
A honeybee gathers pollen from an aster. The open flower has a large surface area, which helps bees and other pollinating insects land easily. Photo: Getty Images.

How to encourage wildlife into the garden

There are lots of ways to encourage wildlife into the garden, from simply planting a range of different flowering plants, to building an insect hotel or introducing a bird feeder. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Shelter for wild insects in forest reserve
This insect hotel is on the larger size but demonstrates the different materials that can be used in smaller insect hotels. Photo: Getty Images.
  • Grow a range of flowering plants, with different flower shapes to invite a whole host of beneficial insects into the garden. Salvias or Verbena bonariensis attract butterflies and bees, and trees and evergreen shrubs that will provide shelter for birds. Try to leave a patch of nettles, as they are beneficial as food to caterpillars
  • In winter, leave architectural seed heads for birds to feed on and plants with strong stems are perfect for hibernating beetles and solitary bees
  • Avoid sterile plants with little or no pollen. These are often double flowered cultivar
  • Build a pond for frogs. They’ll eat the slugs attacking your lettuce. Make sure small animals can get out of the pond easily by creating a boggy area around it
  • Hedgehog houses, insect hotels and bird boxes are all easy to add to the garden and are invaluable to hibernating wildlife and nesting birds.
  • Enhance biodiversity. Don’t tidy your garden too much. In autumn, leave all plants and leaves that have died off and don’t start clearing them up until February. The dead plant material offers protection against frost and shelter for insects and other small animals. Most insects like cool, moist conditions, but bees prefer a sunny spot.
  • Never use pesticides.

The best plants for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects

Cotoneaster horizontalis

Photo: Sharon Pearson

This species – along with all the cotoneasters, but surpassing others in popularity – offers pollen and nectar to insects, as well as berries for birds. It has attractively coloured autumn foliage and an architectural form for either ground cover or as a wall plant. It produces small, white-blushed pink flowers in May, and are inconspicuous until the hum of bees make you stop.
Height 3m. Hardiness rating RHS H4, USDA 5a-7b. Season All year round.

Rosa rugosa

Single rose flowers with petals pink shading to white in center. Leaves very deep green.
Photo: Getty Images

The single, fragrant flowers offer a mass of easily accessible pollen and nectar for bees. It has huge hips to nourish birds and small mammals. They are among the healthiest and easiest roses to grow.

Prunus padus ‘Colorata’

Prunus padus 'colorata'
Photo: Sharon Pearson

A charming medium-sized open textured tree characterised by a distinctly gaunt appearance. Its loose, rounded crown is made up of a criss-cross of long think, dark coloured drooping branches, which in spring are dressed in reddish bronze leaves. These fade to sombre green. The gappy five-petalled flowers are pale pink with creamy green centres. Small, rounded, bitter fruit with glossy skin follow before autumn turns the scene orange red.
Height 12m. Hardiness rating RHS H4, USDA 3a-8b. Season of interest April-May for foliage and flowers. October-November for autumn colour.

Buddleja davidii

Photo showing the large purple flowers of a buddleia tree growing in the wild (Latin name: Buddleja davidii). This is also known as a 'butterfly bush', as the extremely fragrant flowers are often covered in colourful peacock butterflies.
Photo: Getty Images

Buddlejas famously attract insects – especially butterflies. This cultivar flowers latest in the season, when the largest numbers of butterflies are on the wing. If you’ve got B. davidii you can delay it by pruning later in spring. Extend the season by deadheading to encourage side flowers. Deadheading also decreases the risk of self-seeding as buddleja is increasingly considered as an invasive plant.

Centaurea nigra

Centaurea nigra (Common Knapweed - Rayed form)
Photo: Jason Ingram

A native plant, common knapweed is easy to grow in borders as well as meadows. Provides pollen and nectar for a wide range of foraging insects – bees, butterflies and moths. Finches devour the abundant seed. Forms vary considerably and some, such as Centaurea nigra, are particularly garden-worthy.
Height 60cm. Hardiness ratings USDA 7a-10a. Season of interest Summer

Geranium pratense

Geranium pratense 'Wisley Blue'
Geranium pratense ‘Wisley Blue’. Photo: Jason Ingram

With the desperate need to stem the declining honeybee population, these pastel-coloured flowers are a perfect food source. They will happily naturalise themselves in the garden. Dead-head geraniums in July and they will often flower again.
Height 90cm. Hardiness ratings USDA 4a-9b. Season of interest Summer

Agastache ‘Blackadder’

Photo: Jason Ingram
Photo: Jason Ingram

Also known as giant hyssops, these spires tend to be short-lived, requiring excellent drainage and sun. ‘Blackadder’ is an outstanding cultivar with a dark calyx and bluish-purple flowers beloved by bees. Aromatic foliage is an extra bonus and it flowers throughout the summer months.
Height 90cm. Hardiness ratings USDA 6a-9b.

Aster ‘Little Carlow’ (cordifolius hybrid)

Photo: Jason Ingram
Photo: Jason Ingram

A superb, easily grown, mildew-resistant, small-flowered aster for September providing myriad blue daisies with yellow centres. Once fertilised the boss turns red, a colour bees cannot see, so they save energy by visiting only unfertilised flowers. It is also popular with butterflies.
Height 90cm. Hardiness ratings RHS H7, USDA 5a-8b. Season of interest September

Cenolophium denudatum

Cenolophium denudatum

A cow parsley relative flowering in May and June attracting hoverflies to its creamy white umbels over mounds of dark green dissected foliage. Easy in dappled shade or sun, perhaps best suited to the wild garden where it can seed around.
Height 1m. Hardiness rating USDA 6a. Season of interest Early Summer.

Centranthus lecoqii

Centranthus lecoqii
Photo: Jason Ingram
© Marina Christopher

An endemic from the South of France and Spain, Centranthus lecoqii is a variation on the theme of our native red valerian with lilac-coloured flowers. It is attractive to bees, hoverflies, butterflies and hummingbird hawk moths, growing vigorously in sun and poor soils.
Height 50cm. Hardiness rating USDA 5a-6a.

Eryngium bourgatii

Eryngium bourgatii 'Picos Blue'. Photo: Jason Ingram
Eryngium bourgatii ‘Picos Blue’. Photo: Jason Ingram
©:Jason Ingram

This prickly character is a member of the cow parsley tribe. It grows best in full sun with good drainage. Beloved by beneficial insects especially bumblebees. It flowers in summer then leaves an elegant skeleton and plenty of seeds for hungry birds.
Height 50cm. Hardiness ratings USDA 7b-8b.

Ligusticum lucidum

Ligusticum lucidum. Photo: Maayke de Ridder
Photo: Maayke de Ridder

Another cow parsley relative with fresh-looking shiny green leaves and an upright habit, topped with umbels of white flowers in June and July. It is often biennial, although it can be a short-lived perennial. Attracts hoverflies, tolerating sun or dappled shade.
Height 90cm. Hardiness ratings USDA 4a-8b.

Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’

Veronicastrum virginicum 'Lavendelturm'. Photo: Jason Ingram
Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’. Photo: Jason Ingram

Long spires of lavender flowers appear in June and July on this tall perennial. Useful for vertical accents in a border, it is beloved by bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies. Leaves a graceful skeleton through the late summer months.
Height 1.5m. Hardiness ratings USDA 5a-9b. Season of interest Summer

Inspiring ways to attract wildlife into the garden

A few more ideas and extra advice to help welcome beneficial wildlife into your garden.

Wildlife-friendly container display

Galvanised water tank filled with wildlife-friendly plants poppies, dianthus and Orlaya Grandiflora
Photo: Andrew Montgomery

If you want your garden to benefit pollinating insects like bees and butterflies but worry your garden isn’t big enough for swathes of planting, consider creating a pot display. Containers planted with plants that attract wildlife suit a garden of any size. Try this gorgeous example.

The best seed heads for winter structure

Lilium Martagon
Photo: Jason Ingram

Seedheads glistening with frost play an important part in bringing structural winter interest to the garden as well as providing food for birds and insects. For our recommended list of the best seedheads to create and eye-catching display in winter, click here.

Appreciate spiders in the garden

Spiderweb in mist. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

A healthy spider population will help reduce pest insects and should be welcome in any garden. Spiders obviously make no distinction between pests and helpful insects like hoverflies and bees, but they help maintain a natural balance wherever they are. Find out how to appreciate the spiders in your garden here.

Improve your soil

Young seedlings appearing through dark compost soil
Photo: Getty images

No-dig gardener Charles Dowding explains why caring for the soil in your garden is just as important as caring for the plants you grow in it. Nurture your soil and you nurture the helpful organisms living in it, such as earthworms and beneficial fungi and bacteria. Read the full article here.


For more on gardening for wildlife, head to BBC Wildlife Magazine